In this article Major Labl founder Mark Knight, critically examines the AWAL offer. Asking do AWAL really offer any more than an aggregator for independent artists? How does their business model help independent artists?
The illusion of the free and easy music industry
Every unsigned musician wants the same thing: Someone to listen to their music, love their music and help them make a career from their music. This quest for the life changing moment is perfectly dramatised by shows like the X-Factor who make it sound so perfect and simple. You rock-up to an audition, sing your heart out and you become a star.
However, what these shows don't explain is the business model behind the glamour. Who is paying? How does the artist gets paid? and does this actually represent a good deal for the artist? FYI signing away a large percentage of your future income for all previous and future releases without any guaranteed you'll make final is unlikely to be a good deal.
Having grown up on a diet of these shows and zero to hero stories it's probably unsurprisingly that so many unsigned artists still have no idea how the music industry really works. Consequently many artists get sucked in and spat out by the industry machine.
The management challenge facing unsigned artists
Let's take management for a moment. The romanticised vision is the white knight manager who discovers you, takes a chance on you and makes you a star. Now there is nothing wrong with that, and it can, and does happen occasionally, but let's just add some reality to that dream and talk about money.
Managers don't work for free, why would they? But if you don't pay upfront it can feel like it's free, it's designed to be friction-less with the manager taking 20% of your income. If you are a global star, this model works pretty well for both artist and manager. Not so well if you are an unsigned artist who earns less than they spend on music. Let's not forget 20% of nothing is nothing. This is the reason why it is almost impossible for an unsigned artist to attract a manager, it's also the reason why we created our PAYG Management service.
It's becoming easier to get music on streaming services
While the traditional model makes it hard for an unsigned artist to attract a manger, getting your music distributed on music streaming services is increasingly simple and easy. You don't need a label to get your music on Spotify or Apple Music. There are tons of music aggregators out there to help you, here at Major Labl we recommend EmuBands who always do a great job, Spotify are now also starting to allow artists to upload their music directly.
EmuBands: a simple transparent offer to distribute your music
The model offered by EmuBands and many other good distributors is simple and transparent. Simple one-off fee. Retain your rights. Keep 100% royalties.
So if you have a new EP that you want to release you would pay EmuBands a one off fee of £34.95 and nothing more. In return they would guarantee it would appear on key music services like Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Tidal Deezer, Amazon etc. Retaining rights and keeping 100% royalties is key if you are to make a sustainable income from your music.
The AWAL offer to artists is far less transparent
This is why I have such a fundamental objection to AWAL. If you haven't come across them here is their basic pitch to artists.
AWAL is Kobalt's alternative to the traditional record label for independent artists, offering music distribution and more with no upfront fees. Apply now.
Let me dissect this sentence and explain what I read.
AWAL and Kobalt recognise that most artists still dream of being signed, so by calling themselves an alternative record label it makes them instantly more appealing to unsigned artists. To be fair we recognise this better than anyone, we're called Major Labl, so this is nothing but smart positioning.
What do AWAL offer beyond distribution?
Beyond distribution what do AWAL offer unsigned artists? After reading their website and engaging them on Facebook Chat we got to these three points.
Distribution to 200 global music stores backed by reliable industry leading technology.
Access to data on your financials, streaming, playlists, videos, and audience via the AWAL App and Portal.
Direct relationships with Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer and all of the key streaming platforms mean AWAL artists land on more popular playlists more often.
It's clear their distribution service is thorough and comprehensive, but this is just distribution? Remember I am looking to understand what 'distribution and more means' Nobody can explain what 'backed by reliable industry leading technology' means! I assume it means AWAL will upload your music to the right store at the right time and correctly label your music. Surely the basic requirement from any professional aggregator / distributor?
Data is one thing, insights are another. It's unclear what AWAL data looks like but I don't believe it is going to be any better than the data provided by Spotify Artists or the ones provided by an aggregator like EmuBands.
Getting on playlists drives income and unquestionably provides a route for unsigned artists to become financially sustainable independent artists, so this offer from AWAL sounds immediately attractive, who wouldn't want this?
But before you start paying anyone for the promise of Spotify playlisting, there are a lot of things you can do for free. We have some suggestions on our blog. The mistake for any unsigned artist is to divorce this benefit from the wider AWAL financial offer.
AWAL. The illusion of free and being chosen
This is where we return to the point at the start of this article about the illusion of FREE. Unlike EmuBands, AWAL don't charge you an upfront fee, once again the relationship is designed to be easy and frictionless. AWAL position this as a huge benefit to artists, and knowing what we do about generation X-Factor it's easy to see why artists would be seduced by the simplicity of this model.
It's also important to remember AWAL don't just allow anyone to join, you have to apply. Just like a record label they deliberately want to make you feel special. 'You have been chosen', 'We are signing you', 'You are invited', all rhetoric that immediately helps elevate their offer beyond that of an aggregator like EmuBands, but as we've seen there really is little difference.
The real reason they only allow certain artists to join is their business model. If your music isn't being played on streaming services they don't make any money, 15% of nothing is nothing after all.
Upfront fees vs on-going royalty payments
Let's imagine you release a new single with EmuBands. The cost to get your music distributed to key streaming services would be £24.95. Then let's imagine you successfully build buzz around this single and your Spotify plays start to rise. Before you know it you have reached 1,000,000 monthly streams. Every penny is yours to keep and that could be around £3,000 a month. Suddenly you are well on your way to having a sustainable income from music.
Compare this to a release with AWAL. They upload your single to key streaming services and save yourself £24.95 in upfront fees, Once again your single takes off and the play count rises to 1,000,000 monthly streams. Now rather than keeping every penny and paying off some of those music debts, you now give away 15% of your Spotify income. If your monthly income is £3,000 that would mean each year you give £5,400 to AWAL!
Does AWAL help or hinder independent artists?
So ask yourself. Are AWAL really helping unsigned artists become independent artists? Or are they just using the illusion of free and the association with record labels to make money? Are they helping unsigned artists become independent are just providing another barrier? You decide.